Engineers as Commodities

If we don’t recognize the change in front of us,
then we are beholden to the life behind us.
— Chris Edwards

Not bad, huh? I spent several minutes trying to find a quote that would perfectly portray my tl;dr as I wrote this. I poured over endless snippets from people that were more educated, intelligent and worldly than myself, and I found several that could have been wedged in to serve the purpose. Then it occurred to me: finding a quote by someone else, that says exactly what I want to say, defeats the whole idea I’m trying to point out.

“If we don’t recognize the change in front of us, then we are beholden to the life behind us.”

It seems a little cliché, I know. To say that life is constantly changing, and the past defines who we are today. But the correlation here is to the new commodity for startups and established software companies alike. It’s the commodity of engineering talent.

For years now we’ve heard stories of companies such as Apple and Google and Benefitfocus going out of their way, as companies (ie: dedicated budgets), to recruit and retain the “best talent”. But be careful with that phrase. Talent doesn’t always mean the best culture-fit. It doesn’t always mean the best programmer. It doesn’t always mean the most past experience. As well, it could very well mean ALL of those things.

In business, things change rapidly and the phrase “best talent” is almost always described differently by the one seeking it. This is forcing candidates to re-invent themselves as not only valuable employees, but properly-branded, necessary assets. Companies are hiring and firing at will in an attempt to find the right combination of selfless, capable, cost-effective individuals on which to build their business. This trend is even more pronounced with startups where deadlines are often their most important asset and an ill-producing employee is too easily replaced from an eager talent pool.

For their part, the “best talent” no longer consider long tenure a status symbol. They can’t even imagine the thought of being with the same company for 10 years, let alone 30. For them, it’s about how they can be best positioned today for any potential opportunity tomorrow. They are looking to be challenged. They are looking to contribute. They are looking to be appreciated. And, of course, they are looking for comfortable salaries. In the past, the “best talent” was often those who had the most tenure. This wasn’t easily transferrable outside of the company and therefore, the motivation to “shop oneself around” didn’t exist.

One interesting trend in recruiting and retaining the “best talent” is an assumption that ping pong tables and free beer are enough to define a company as having culture. While exceptionally generous, these things never have been enough - the essence of the relationship has too drastically changed. Companies are having to get creative to provide an environment where employees want to come to work. They are hiring private chefs to serve lunches and snacks and allowing employees to work outside of the office. They are providing gym memberships and adoption assistance. As well as, beautiful environments in which to work. This is all meant to keep an ever-migrating class of worker stationary.

Even recruiting firms have taken notice of this market’s potential. Lee-Anne Scalley and her team at OneinaMil have built a company around it. They help potential candidates “create an authentic personal brand that ensures they are confident and competitive in their career.” Even to the point of offering both interview prep and resume assessment. Helping engineers literally build a “virtual” portfolio for themselves using online resumés, LinkedIn profiles, GitHub repos, and open-source contributions.

Admittedly, not all employees can be trusted to define their own structure with this much freedom and some positions require on-site participation. But a strong employee-employer trust has a future as an employment strategy and the practice of requiring engineers to be “office-present” continues to erode.

The true extent of that impact will unfold with the changes ahead of us.